For those following developments in and around Ferguson, Missouri, a bit of good news is a kind of oasis within the more troubling landscape of grief, rage, and unrest surrounding the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown on August 9. It was good news for residents when the Ferguson Library posted a note on August 11 to say, “Hoping to open library soon since things remain peaceful outside.” But most people outside of the St. Louis suburb probably paid little attention to this.
Then on August 15, tensions worsened following the police press conference finally naming the officer involved in the shooting while simultaneously suggesting that Brown had been a suspect in a shoplifting incident. Amidst the growing furor, Ferguson Library posted an Instagram showing the temporary sign on their site. It reads: “During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next. Please help keep our oasis peaceful and serene.” The oasis photo appeared on Twitter with a note adding: “We are here for all of our residents. If you want to come, get water, read, check email, we are here and happy to serve our community!”
This little bit of cheer quickly drew positive attention from library fans as well as from the wider world following hashtag #Ferguson and eager for a spot of quiet in the storm.
By that time, the library was hosting press in addition to residents, library director Scott Bonner said, but the library was never really a “refuge,” despite the war-like scenes on national news. The protests and police response are confined largely to the neighborhood immediately surrounding Michael Brown’s death, two miles from the library. The rest of the town has been “as quiet and peaceful as normal,” Bonner explained in a telephone interview. Yes, the town has been tense, he added, but there is not a sense of siege. “The national story is an important one,” Bonner told me. “But it doesn’t define Ferguson.”
This is evident, too, in the way that Bonner and the library use the hashtag #Ferguson. It’s a celebration of community, not a political war cry. Similarly, local business Ferguson Optical arranged for a sign outside the library reading “Stay Strong Ferguson. We are family.”
On August 19, with schools in Ferguson-Flourissant and the neighboring district of Jennings closed due to unrest and blocked streets, the library announced that teachers would be on site with activities for children from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Bonner says that local teacher Carrie Pace came in on Monday to offer her services. She helped line up volunteer teachers and parents. Pace and fellow teachers stood outside the library on Tuesday with signs reading, “Teacher here to teach” and “School Closed: Bring your students here.” Bonner said the library was chock full of students, with activities in the reading areas, a little conference room, every corner he could find. By the second day, the informal learning center had 150 children and 60 volunteers.
Bonner is the library’s only full-time staff person, although there are 15 others employed part-time. He was invited to join the Education Town Hall this morning but declined, saying that he was quite occupied at this time yesterday helping the impromptu learners settle in and expected to be just as busy this morning.
While school is still closed, Ferguson teachers were due for in-service today and tomorrow, leaving the programming up to new sets of volunteers. Today’s programs at the library and a neighboring church are offered by local artist Jeane Vogel, by the St. Louis Science Center, the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, and Springboard St. Louis – a part of the national Young Audiences Arts for Learning Network. Options range from reading and math activities to juggling and drumming.
Praise for the library and the teachers has been pouring in, Bonner told me, and he believes the volunteers deserve recognition. He calls Carrie Pace a “hero.” But he seems more excited to have new young library patrons than to reach national news. “It’s great to get the recognition during this tough situation,” he explains. “But we’re just doing what libraries do. This is exactly what libraries do….This is part of the point of a library — to be a community meeting space, to support parents in the education of their children.”
Bonner said the library still needs local volunteers and supplies. Any arts and craft materials not used by the library will be given to the schools. Asked what people outside the St. Louis area might do to support the library and the community, Bonner recommended using local libraries and supporting libraries nationwide. Paralleling many Ferguson community activists who ask outsiders to consider organizing in their own towns instead of traveling to Ferguson, Bonner says: “Your local library is there for you. Go to your library.”
The Ferguson Library is but one of many across the country making up a network of educational and community essential services. And the independent groups, like Young Audiences and conservation centers, form additional crucial links in local and national education infrastructure.
Listen here for additional comments on education in Ferguson-Flourissant —